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In Words: Savatage

- Zak Stevens & Johnny Lee Middleton - Aug. 1995 - Claudia Ehrhardt -

Savatage: Zak Stevens - live 1996
Claudia Ehrhardt

Zak Stevens & Johnny Lee Middleton
- Cologne (Germany), August, 19th 1995 -

The Florida based band recorded a very unusual album called Dead Winter Dead. The conceptual album is about the Bosnian war. At the PopKomm I had the chance to talk to Johnny Lee Middleton & Zak Stevens.

Why does an American band write about this war? For us it seems that the Americans don't care about what happens in Europe.

We do! Many, many people in the States don't understand and are very confused about the war. They really want to help, they want help the former Yugoslavia. I think that the people think that the United States are far away. But not really. You see people who say "Stop the killing! Stop the war!"

Many more people that you expect are care about the war.

If I want to get the news I switch on CNN.

The people are really getting sick of it in the United States. Because it's going on so long. That's one reason we did the album. 'Cause we can't believe it's going on this long. Trust me, it's stupid. We wanted to do what ever we could to draw some attention to it. We wanted to show everybody that the United States does care. And also we wanted to show people in the United States that we are not a normal rock band, that we doesn't care about anything. I mean with this we could show people in the United States with this album that we are a little different. And that we do have an interest in things other than drinking, women, whatever. I mean, we are. We think like that, 'cause everybody in the band like to read a lot. We read many, many novels about the history of Yugoslavia just to do this album. 'cause we figured that we should know a lot about it. So the more reading you do the more terrible ...

How much the media does hype certain things. So it's like ... That's one reason why we wanted to get into, we decided to do it.

You write about themes which are important to you and not just write fictive stories.

Things are really true. If you read the lyrics in the CD you got a closed look to this. Beside the lyrics it's full of emotions. These are a few stories which become a part of the whole story, but we used to know characters which from the actual tragedies. These little stories from the war as an emphasis to write about. So these are true stories. This really get you thinking. that's good for the music 'cause it makes the music very intense.

Stories are very intense human experience that e.g. to be stocking your basement for 4 years and every time you go out to drink water and bread to live ...

You got shoot up by the canons.

You can't imagine that.

Your sister getting drag out of the house and systematically raped and being killed.

Women and children, doesn't matter they are trying to kill children to get water. They trying to kill anybody. It's crazy.

It's 1995!

I don't understand it. And I'm just one person in that world. Even we are just a band, how much difference we can make? We hope to make some kind of difference, we figured we get draw attention in the United States alone that issue to the attention of a quarter of a million people at least.

The people that buy our record.

Just in the United States. I think we have the chance to get many, many more thousands in the territories in Europe and elsewhere. We can do that, I think that's something. We just trying to do something, but we are still guilty. I think everybody who cares about the war has a guilty conscience of source. Just cause we want to help this people out this terrible thing they have to go through. We won't to be part of that, we won't have to go through that. You never know what it's like to see a bodies lying around. That shocked, now they don't even feel anymore, they're like stun people. Too bad that you have a person going through that.

The thing about this record is, we not trying to change the world. We not trying to draw side, we are not on anyone's side. We just hope that it would be a more interesting thing to take on than it would be have just 15 songs on a record.

It makes the record a little bit more coherent than to have a story. At the end of the record you see that we leave it up to the individual to make up your own mind about it. If you don't agree, okay.

We don't want to preach just give something to think about.

We want to leave it up to the individual who listen to the record to be able to make up your own mind. Maybe think a little bit about it. Perhaps not be one of the people which turn away the next time you see it on television.

The record, you know, you can take each song. They don't have to be played together to get the whole idea.

You can just hear one song to get what's going on.

It's just like together they tell a story. Separately they tell little stories. Each song has it's own little story. When you put them all together than it is like one big story. It starts in the very beginning in the town of Sarajevo. The first song it's a gargoyle's view, he's a stone figure. He has no feelings, but he wants it and he wonders what the hell is going on.

He sees it all come to a story and at the and of the record the gargoyle kind of becomes human. But once he becomes human he doesn't want to be human any more. Because the emotions come to afflict him by the tragedy so badly that he almost wants to become stone again. Because I think this people are turned to stone. So the gargoyle remains. It's the first character in the record, but it's kind of a symbol. Not really a character, but an important symbol for the rest of the record how people can turn to stone and stone can become human. Of course we know that this can't really happen.

It's something interesting to write about. It's a challenge.

It's a real challenge, because you really get involved with the emotions of the whole thing which was tough. We all read books about the history of former Yugoslavia and about the whole thing, the day by day accounts of the first search of Sarajevo.

I think it's good to read about things not just take what the TV presents.

Everything has it's one side. You are seeing a propaganda. Propaganda is in every country, whether we wanna know it or not.

The news we see on TV in the States is very light compared to what I've seen hear. It's still in my mind what I've seen yesterday. A fucking ladies head, slaughtered. It's fucking sick, one guy's throw the head after slaughtering this Moslem woman.

They show a lot more on TV here in Europe. But it's fake.

People getting tired of the report from the Bosnian war. They don't care for.

People kind of feel helpless about this former Yugoslavia now. We kind of feel helpless. But we figured that we had the power to put out a record which is released world-wide. So we do have a little power, we kind a feel like we have the obligation once we decided to do the record about this. It almost become an obligation to use that power of the media, the power of a recording to do some beside just side back and ignore it. I know that times are hard, we don't ask you just dive in and go through this tragedy. But at least to might be the emphasis for real deep music it works and we draw some attention to it will be good. Because it's hard for people to continue to worry about. I figure that they feel helpless, there's nothing else you can do. I know we feel the same way. I don't know what can happen except that we know that when the world got together we can stop the war in a day. But nobody is willing to sacrifice lives from Germany, lives from the United States, lives from Swiss ones.

Fight someone else's war.

It's almost like sitting at the school bus stopping, walking to kids beat the hell out of each other. And everyone standing around, "Get off, get off" but nobody is doing anything.

Often the people just watch and don't act.

But it's starting in the backyard, not in my backyard.

The problem is that the people think that they can't do anything. That they don't have the power to change things.

Nobody cares and it's 1995. It's not 1945.

Here we have a problem with the racism.

We have the same problem in the U.S.

It's so common to talk about racism that people don't wanna think about anymore. Especially in the United States it's still raise guilty the same thing. It's like they don't wanna be together as one. They don't wanna understand the other people. That's what's wrong in the former Yugoslavia. They don't care to understand. Let's just get them out of the city so that we can live there. So the Moslems, the Bosnians.

The Germany go every in their holidays, they buy things in the shops of the foreigners. They don't want the people, they just want the best out of the country. They can't except the different people. It's good for the holidays, but not as neighbours. They feel fine in Italy, Turkey, wherever, but never wanna live next to the immigrants.

How can you enjoy the things of a land and not the people which produce them?

I don't know. I think it's so interesting the different cultures, different people.

People in a certain group is just a natural human tendency to stick with your group.

To stay in the in-group and not deal with the out-group. In these days we have to get it right, 'cause the world gets older and it's the world that the future comes there are so many situation where you have to live together with other races. If we don't get it right now, how knows perhaps Germany and the United States doing what the former Yugoslavia is doing now. Ten years could be the end of the world. It might be the end of the world if this might happen. Something has to be done that this war doesn't spread. that it doesn't become acceptable for the rest of us.

Yugoslavia have a war for 5 years, for 4 years now, but I imaging that it's gonna go longer. Why we don't do that same thing? Look, they want get more territory and do someone find something positive about that war, territorial or whatever. That's the sickness.

At the moment it changes a little bit here in Germany. The people try to force companies e.g. Shell and also the French government to change their behaviour. Now they try and perhaps they take their power to even change things in former Yugoslavia.

It could be very interesting to see how all this plays out. I'm really interested to see. Knowing that we took the time to do the album, it might not change anything, but it would be very interesting to see. We all get so involved in this subject, now we really in to see the outcome.

I'd like to see quick action, but it's interesting whatever happens. That's gonna be that much more interesting, 'cause we took the time to think that much earlier.

This is the war which is almost in the news, but there are so many 'smaller' wars, not so important for us.

The Czechnian rebels, e.g. we had a little war called the 'Oklahoma City bombing'. That was a kind of war, it was the most terrible thing which ever happen in the United States.

In the States now better drawing in the white criminal. These guys want their own country. This are military group. They are making bombs.

I was shocked when I first heard about it.

They feel like the American government. So they wanna have their own state. It's almost the same thing they called the civil war. The United States use to consider. Whenever the United States call the civil war, it was always, if you were looking a government, personal to politics. The United States are considering this thing. The United States are looking. ....After the civil war become is considering this. It always consider that the states were separate and than the United States are looking at this problem. After the civil war it became the United States is looking at this problem. They never said is before the civil war. It takes a war to consider to get you together. I don't wanna see that happen again. It shouldn't, but it sure wanna lead to a civil war again, it's gonna lead to a big break down. No way without we gonna love each other. We have to learn.

We are no politicians, just musicians.

It seems that you care more about than many politicians, 'cause they just care for the money and don't care for anything.

Big car, big house.

If you just care about the money, you just didn't be a public servant. That's what Ross Perot... He wants to become President. He really wanted that politicians make normal amount and just be there for the people. For the people he has a special interest groups who haven't a party or lobby. It never gonna be perfect. At least we have a situation like the former Yugoslavia that's the worst case. That people not able to life together at the same place. It's crazy, it's really weird. But I mean we can't get in the history of Yugoslavia it take to long. But I think the people how wanna read about it you can get enough books about. You can understand a little more, but it's still ridiculous.

It's the same here. We can get it, but in Russia they can get anything. It's so limited by the government what they can listen to, what they can read.

When they find out what's that record about they probably can't buy that there either.

We always get ask why a band from the United States wrote an album like this. Do you really care about it? An question no. 2: Why do you concern about Yugoslavia, there is no oil over there? They think that the only thing which get the United States involved anything is oil. I hear that so many times from different people in interviews. Why do you concern about Yugoslavia? There is no oil over there.

I know there is (joking).

Okay, let's go there and find it, but we have to go through the rebels zone. (joking) You know it's typical that they are thinking we not care about anything in, less there's oil. But in a way that I read more I continue that I read more. I read about the war was that the worlds oil. We got oil reserves in the United States that can last for the next 30 years. But they just don't wanna touch in case of an emergency. The thing is why do that when you got oil from other parts of the world. There is a crazy guy that want to take control over different countries in the middle East, too. It's not just about oil.

I think people think this because of the roll the United States play in the Golf war.


We actually trying to protect the whole worlds oil supply. Not just they think that we are just trying to get the oil for ourselves, 'cause we have a huge country. We do need more oil, but it was actually the whole worlds oil supply we try to protect. The U.S. own 1/3 of all the worlds oil. 30% just in one country. They are doing something now. We keep seeing a bad guy in the news.

It's a big mess.

We don't understand German that well, so we have to turn on the TV and kind a get sip through and get the meaning. Sometimes certain war like this can crossover to the whole world. And I think the war in the former Yugoslavia is really one of those who really closed over and getting the attention. Pretty much heard by the world, but yet there is nobody who really wants to step in. And intervene to the point of ending war, 'cause they really could say 'We end the war next week.' It could be ended next week, but still how do you make the people live together after that? I mean, really I have no idea how to make them live together.

For Germany it was a problem that the other European countries a little bit fear the power of a united Germany. They think the Germans want to get the control over Europe like they tried in the mid-30's. Like in the days before the 2nd World War. so we have to be a little bit more careful. In history everything returns.

The world don't learn from history. You can't blame anybody, because people don't wanna to sacrifice human lives, 'cause of things they don't undestand. They call it a religious war, but we know that it's more a racial war, not really a religious war. The hear the word Moslem and they think it's religious. They are the same colour. Just 30 years ago the Moslem said when the Turkish came in and took over their area in Yugoslavia in the say "Okay, convert or die." "Okay, I convert."

There really no different in their blood, just people say "Okay, I convert." It's crazy it's as old as the world. That destroyed a huge part of history.

One by one and just target in.

I think it's not that important how they call their God or something like that. Their own believe, everybody should keep it and they don't should care how they call it or what kind it is.

Yeah, they let them do their thing. They don't hurt anybody.

If they don't try to convert everyone we all could live together.

No, we can't. We all believe the same blood. That's the bottom line.

I think the world is slowly but surely get a come together over this war. In the end it will happen. The circle ends have to be put together. But I think it will end time.

Hopefully before we die.

And hopefully before everyone over there dies.

If you go back in history it's the same in South America. Almost of the population there are immigrants from Europe or partly from Africa. In the States it's more the immigrants from England and Africa.

Yeah, we are a melting pot in the United States.

But it seems that the people forgot about that.

We are Americans, you basically your are a part Scottish or German, etc.

People often forget that.

The only Americans are the native Americans. We fucking rated them out.

That's right. They say "See you later, go live on the reservation."

We shove them and took their lands.

We both have Indian blood. We are partly Cherokee Indian. Our grandfathers were Indians, we have Indian blood in our families. We are from the Southern part of the United States, but it wasn't fair. I hate what happened to the Indians. I think it's just a matter of power. You know you have the white men coming over from Europe. They had the power, these guys had the horses. &qout;We need this land, so you have to move." There have been wars. You heard about General Custer? The general from the civil war? He lost his live...

He got shot in the ends.

We all have our little ... Every country got their little thing. To fix it, the people got loosing a little patient about the former Yugoslavia, 'cause we are not trying to fix anything. We are scared to death by seeing the hate. It's growing to a huge ball of hate.

Everyone fears to loose something.

People really blame the President Bush. They blame him for not going in and taking out.

He don't have an easy job to do. I don't want to have his job, really.

Not an easy job to rule the United Nations. Exactly. You saw President Clinton in he last weeks on the news. He is aged like 20 years. Every president when they come out after one term, they look like they aged 20 years. Clinton looks fucking old now. You know, think about while you are blaming Bush, he should have win and kill it. He had to do what the United Nations said. Your mission is only to push a rack out of Kuweit. That's what they did, they pushed him out. But they couldn't going on in the end, because General Schwarzkopf said: "There was an opening instead of just kill them all.". He lost 100,000 men in the war and we lost 27 men over half of our own friendly fire. There just now having court trials in the United States, 'cause to get the guys who push the wrong buttons. They just fired 5 generals which they normally wouldn't touch. They say we are taking more action there. That's bad, a 4-star general got to loose his job, but when 15 -16 men out of 30 get killed by your own friendly fire. That's a problem. We killed our own men over there. That's an incredible rate. 30 men to 100,000 that's not fair. But he should not start the war.

That was a religious war what they were fighting.

That's right.

The people fought an unequal war. The men in the first rows hadn't got guns or anyother weapons. Just getting there to give their lives to protect the lines behind them.

Just suicide.

It was like a suicide mission.

Kamikaze mission.

I was shocked hearing that people get forced by their religion to do things like that for their religion.

Doesn't make a lot of sense.

I guess they take it a little more to far. You haven't to let your religion hurt other persons, 'cause religion is a personnel believe to keep into a higher level spiritually. Not to interfere other peoples lives and keep killing.

Their live been ruled by their religion and they can't make decision on their own. They just follow their religious leader or the leader of their religious community. They don't think about. In some cases it's the same like in the 2nd World War here in Germany. The people just follow the leader, stop thinking.

I did a lot of shit without thinking at first.

But you not killing anyone...

No! I have a hard time killing a fish when I was fishing. I catch them and trough them back into the water.

Are there plans that you come on tour?

Really soon, we are getting the ball rolling businesswise right now.

It's just a matter of time being here.

We were in the studio for 4 months, just getting out literally. It's like being in prison. Being in the studio or being on the road it's like living in two different worlds. You locked in and you can't leave until the shit is done.

I'm still tired from the studio. I haven't recovered yet.

Than we had to do so many photo shots, every one 10 hours long. Jetlag after coming to Germany. It's brutal.

We are tired. We've got a lot work to do in this special time period.

We want to get this record out this year, not next year. We could have easily set back and say the record came out in February. But I think it is too late for this kind of record, 'cause I wanna really try to get the album out. It don't make sense to release it when the war is ended. Because there are so many things that are gonna be find out after the war is done. That we are not really know if the death counts gonna go to the roof. We are gonna find out about war crimes which we don't really know about. We'll gonna find more mass graves. You won't believe.

Like we did here in Germany after Germany be united. I don't think that I really wanna know all this. After more than 40 years we find out thinks about the 2nd World War which I really don't wanna know.

It's hard to me to imagine, here we are in 1995 and we are talking about the same thing.

We don't learn from history.

They never learnt from history. Why didn't we learn?

Everything happened before.

History has the tendency to repeat itself.

It repeats as far as it comes to bad things. It was always the same way, racial problems.

The same thing I can't believe that it's 1995.

We just talk about that things in 1995, we shouldn't have to do that. We shouldn't have to record an album about it.

It's an interesting subject to make music about.

It's an very intense thing. It makes the music very intense.

This makes the music intense, you can show a lot of feelings. More as you can show when you singing about daily life.

It's hard to get the intense in a normal song. I agree with you, this is a good subject.

You can get thrilled by the music.

I don't know about what I'll write for the next album. It's nearly impossible to top it.

I think Savatage musically didn't change through the years.

We almost sound the same. We just got a little more depth in the studio. Each record you learn something. Thank God! How many records we got? Ten or eleven?

It's the 8th one on Atlantic and you had 3 before that.

I don't even know. 10 years ago, man, I'm feeling fucking old.

We definitely see you live in Europe?

Yeah, we'll play here.

We would like to play in Russia, but that's impossible.

I know that it's hard to play there, 'cause it costs a hell a lot of money.

The boys from Florida will show that they are interested in what happens here. They care and hope that they could change something. This band believe that their work on this album was a success if just one minds been turned. If you want to let them know what you think about the album or anything else write to their fan club. The fan club will forward the letters to the band.
Savatage, P.O. Box 3519, Grand Central Station, New York, NY 10163, U.S.A.

Claudia Ehrhardt


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